04/05/2008 12:00AM

Wood's major players come in off clunkers


OZONE PARK, N.Y. - Rebound or re-route.

That's the theme for many of the high-profile 3-year-olds hoping to use Saturday's Grade 1, $750,000 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct as a stepping-stone to next month's Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs.

Last year's 2-year-old champion War Pass, the graded juvenile stakes winners Tale of Ekati and Anak Nakal, and the New York-bred Giant Moon all will be trying to prove their most recent starts were aberrations and give their connections reason to pursue their Derby dreams. Meanwhile, Court Vision and Texas Wildcatter will try to improve upon their last efforts and become significant players in the Derby picture.

A total of 10 3-year-olds were entered in the 1 1/8-mile Wood, the highlight of a stellar 11-race program at Aqueduct that also includes the Grade 1 Carter, the Grade 3 Bay Shore, and the Grade 3 Excelsior Handicap. The one damper is the potential for a wet track. One to two inches of rain was forecast for Friday, with a 70 percent chance of showers lingering into Saturday.

Analyzing the Wood begins with War Pass, who used his brilliant speed to win his first five starts - including the Breeders' Cup Juvenile in the slop at Monmouth Park - before finishing last as the 1-20 favorite in the Tampa Bay Derby on March 15.

War Pass did not break well in that race, found himself between and then behind horses, and was all done by the quarter pole. Trainer Nick Zito has yet to pinpoint a plausible excuse for what went wrong, though the colt's owner, Robert LaPenta, has many theories, including the possibility of a flipped palate.

Zito, a three-time winner of the Wood, is just hoping that War Pass had a bad day. Zito said he loves everything he's seen from War Pass since Tampa and can draw on some prior experiences of horses rebounding off poor efforts. In 2000, Zito's Albert the Great was defeated by 28o1/2 lengths in the Jim Dandy, but came back three weeks later to come within a head of winning the Travers.

"They shut down for some reason, for whatever it is," Zito said. "The War Pass that we know is special. I just want to see him run that kind of race. To me - and you can quote me - the Wood is more important to me for him than the Derby. If he runs a good race in the Wood, I'll be as happy as can be."

War Pass will break from post 5 under Cornelio Velasquez. He is likely to face some pace pressure from Inner Light, who apparently is going to be used as a rabbit for his stablemate Court Vision.

Zito is adding blinkers to Anak Nakal's equipment after two poor efforts to begin the year. Zito said he is expecting Anak Nakal, who will break from post 10 under Alan Garcia, to run "his best race this year."

Like Zito's pair, Tale of Ekati will be trying to reestablish his Derby credentials. Winner of the Grade 2 Futurity at Belmont last September, Tale of Ekati was beaten 17 1/2 lengths by War Pass in the BC Juvenile. In the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby, Tale of Ekati got away poorly and finished sixth. Trainer Barclay Tagg has worked him twice from the gate since, including a bullet half-mile at Palm Meadows on Tuesday.

If rain leaves the main track in poor condition - as the inner track was on Gotham Day - trainer Richard Schosberg could end up scratching Giant Moon, who was beaten 42 lengths in the slop in the Gotham.

Court Vision returns to Aqueduct, where he overcame a troubled trip to win the Grade 2 Remsen last fall. In his only start this year, Court Vision closed from last to finish third in the Fountain of Youth.

"I would have loved to have won, but he was a little far back on that racetrack and it's a little hard to make up that kind of ground," said trainer Bill Mott.

Mott believes Court Vision has taken a step forward in his training since that race. Court Vision will break from post 3 while stablemate Inner Light, under C.C. Lopez, will break from post 9. The two will be coupled in the wagering.

Texas Wildcatter was beaten a nose by Visionaire in the Wood after making what trainer Todd Pletcher felt was a premature move under Norberto Arroyo Jr. Eibar Coa will ride Texas Wildcatter from the rail on Saturday.

Spurrier, First Commandment, and Roman Emperor round out the field.

The Wood will be televised live on NBC in a one-hour program that begins at 5 p.m. Eastern and includes the Santa Anita Derby.